Consular processing describes a U.S. government procedure when someone intending to immigrate to the United States completes the application for a green card (lawful permanent residence) through a U.S. embassy or consulate in his or her country. This involves submitting forms and documents to the consulate, having a medical exam done per the consulate's instructions, and attending an interview there.
Consular processing can be thought of as "part two" of the green card application process, however. "Part one" is usually either the immigrant's U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident relative submitting and getting an I-130 petition approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services (USCIS) on the immigrant's behalf, an employer obtaining labor certification and an approved I-140 petition for the immigrant, or the immigrant being selected in the diversity visa lottery. Then after some follow-up paperwork, the case gets transferred to the appropriate U.S. embassy or consulate.
Only after the intending immigrant attends an interview with U.S. consular personnel and is approved for an immigrant visa can the person enter the United States and claim lawful permanent resident (LPR) status.
Most immigrants will have no choice but to use consular processing as their green card application method, especially if they are already living overseas. People rarely are given an opportunity to enter the U.S. in order to complete the application there.
But a few immigrants who are already living in the United States, in particular those who are either on a valid visa or entered with inspection and are immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen, can use an alternative procedure known as adjustment of status. This means that you submit your documents and attend your green card interview at a USCIS office, without ever having to visit or interact with a U.S. consulate.
Still, many immigrants who are living in the United States are not eligible to use the adjustment of status procedure, in particular those whose permitted stay under a visa has expired or who entered the U.S. illegally. They will likely be required to leave the U.S. and use consular processing. Unfortunately this creates risks for people who have been living unlawfully in the United States, as described below.
Also, be aware that you should not attempt to use a tourist visa to enter the United States hoping to adjust status. That could be considered visa fraud, and lead to a denial of your green card.
For immigrants who have lived unlawfully in the U.S. for 180 days or more, consular processing might not lead to a green card, but to a bar on returning. By leaving the U.S., they become subject to penalties for their unlawful stay. Even if they otherwise qualify for a green card, the consulate must, under the law, bar them from reentering the U.S. for three years if their unlawful stay was between 180 days and one year, or ten years if their unlawful stay was one year or more.
See an attorney if you're in this situation—there is a waiver you can apply to USCIS for (on Form I-601A), but it's difficult to get approval for.
When your relative or employer filled out your I-130 or I-140 petition, or when you filled out your lottery application, your address or other information will have told the U.S. government which consulate would be most convenient for you. After your petition has been approved or you've won the lottery, a central office known as the National Visa Center (NVC) will take care of transferring your file to the appropriate consulate.
A lot has to happen, however, before the NVC transfers your case. First, the NVC will have you fill out a Choice of Address and Agent form (DS-261) online.
At the same time, if you're immigrating through a family member, the NVC will send that person a bill for processing the Affidavit of Support (Form I-864). (This is the form which your family member will need to fill out and submit, promising to support you if necessary; see How to Complete USCIS Form I-864 When Sponsoring an Immigrant.)
After the NVC receives your Form DS-261, it will send you a bill for the immigrant visa processing fee.
Exactly what happens next will depend in part on which embassy you'll be interviewed at. You and the petitioner will have to fill out various forms and paperwork, and undergo a medical exam. But procedures vary as to where you send them once you're done, and who you hear back from (either the NVC or the consulate). You'll learn a lot from What Happens Between I-130 Approval and Consular Interview.
The final step in obtaining your visa is to attend an interview with a U.S. consular official. You'll receive written notification of your interview date. The government uses the interview as an opportunity to verify the contents of your application after you've sworn to tell the truth, and will check your medical, criminal, and financial records to see whether you're inadmissible.
If you're applying based on marriage, the consular officer will also ask personal questions designed to reveal whether your marriage is the real thing or a fraud to get the immigrant a green card.
For security reasons, you might not be approved for the immigrant visa at the interview itself. Instead, assuming all goes well, you will be asked to return to the consulate to pick up your immigrant visa. There will be a time limit on when you can use it to enter the United States and claim your lawful permanent resident status. The actual green card (sometimes called Form I-551) will be sent to you by mail some weeks after that.