Immigrant Visa Process: An Overview

The Process of Getting an Immigrant Visa

For many immigrants, getting a green card is a dream. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to do when you have to get an immigrant visa through a U.S. consulate located in your home country. Here, we will review the immigrant visa process step-by-step to give you a better understanding of the steps to being able to live in the U.S. on a permanent basis.

Whether you are doing this on your own, with a lawyer, or through some online service, you can avoid many delays and frustrations if you know how the immigrant visa process works.


Step One - Filing a Visa Petition

The first step in the immigrant visa process is to file a visa petition.

What is an immigrant visa petition?

When the government uses the term “Immigrant Visa,” it is referring to a document that lets you enter the United States as a lawful permanent resident, or green card holder.  When the government refers to an “Immigrant Visa Petition,” it is referring to an application, or request, to give someone a chance to get an immigrant visa.  The form is called an I-130.  If you’ve already filed one, you may also want to learn more about checking your I-130 case status.

Who can file an immigrant visa petition?

The next question is, “Who can file an Immigrant Visa Petition?” In other words, who has the right to ask the government to give someone the chance to apply for an immigrant visa or green card?

The answer is: a U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident.  The U.S. immigration laws are written to benefit people who live in the country (U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents) with the purpose of keeping families together.  So these individuals can file Immigrant Visa Petitions to give their family members the right to come live in the U.S.   The family members who they are filing for are commonly referred to as “Beneficiaries.”

Who can you file a visa petition for?

A U.S. citizen or green card holder can file a petition for some family members, but not all.  In other words, only certain kinds of relatives can be the beneficiary of a petition.

Beneficiaries are divided into two groups. The first group is referred to as “immediate relatives.” These are:

  • parents of U.S. citizens
  • spouses of U.S. citizens
  • children (unmarried and under the age of 21) of U.S. citizens

The second group is referred to as “preference categories relatives”:

  • adult children (married or unmarried) of U.S. citizens,
  • spouses and children of lawful Permanent Residents

The point is, you can’t file a petition for just any relative.  They have to fall within one of the categories above.

How do you file a visa petition?

An Immigrant Visa Petition is filed on Form I-130 with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). The form may be downloaded from their website or you can file online using USCIS’s online service. The fee is $535.

Step 2 - Send Application and Fees to the National Visa Center

We are now at the second step of immigrant visa process.

When USCIS approves an I-130 Immigration Visa Petition, the Beneficiary (foreign-born relative) may now apply for an Immigrant Visa. There are only two places that the Beneficiary can apply for their Immigrant Visa, inside the U.S. or outside the U.S.   For the purposes of this article, we will address the latter. Applying outside the U.S. for an Immigrant Visa is known as Consular Processing. So when USCIS approves your I-130 Petition it is sent the National Visa Center (NVC) which is an agency within the U.S. Department of State.

What happens after the I-130 petition arrives at the National Visa Center (NVC)?

The NVC is the agency responsible for making sure that all of the fees, documents and applications are submitted so that an interview can be scheduled at a consulate abroad. In other words, the NVC handles all of the heavy lifting so that all consulate officers have to do is review what was submitted.

When the NVC receives an approved I-130 Immigrant Visa Petition, it will create a case. The person who filed the I-130 will receive an email or mail correspondence with a case number and invoice ID number. The Beneficiary will use this information to log in to the NVC’s online case management system, known as Consular Electronic Application Center or “CEAC” for short.

Using the CEAC System for NVC Filing

The NVC’s CEAC system exists to expedite the process. On this system you will pay all fees, complete all applications and submit all supporting documents. It’s helpful to provide a list of items that you will need to submit:

  • Fees of $325 and $120 per Applicant
  • The Beneficiary’s passport information page. This is the page with their picture, name and other information.
  • The Beneficiary’s birth certificate with translation, if necessary
  • The Beneficiary’s marriage certificate, if one exists. It will need to be translated if in a foreign language.
  • Any divorce decrees, if they exist.   They will need to be translated if in a foreign language.
  • Any Court or Prison documents the Beneficiary has ever been arrested in any country.
  • Police clearance letters or certificates for every country the Beneficiary may have lived in for more than 6 months since age 16.
  • The family member who petitioned for Beneficiary will also need to submit their U.S. Passport, Taxes and form I-864

After everything is submitted through CEAC

After all required documents have been submitted on the CEAC system, a NVC officer will review everything. If there are any issues, an email will be sent informing all parties that there is a message on the CEAC system. That message will state what, if anything, is missing. If nothing is missing, and everything is accepted, then the Beneficiary will be scheduled for an Immigrant Visa interview at a consulate abroad in about 2-8 months, depending on the consulate.

Step 3 - Prepare for the Visa Interview

We are at the third step in the immigrant visa process.

Once all of the required forms and documents have been submitted to the National Visa Center (NVC), an appointment will be scheduled for the foreign-born Applicant at a U.S. consulate post abroad. Once scheduled, the Applicant still has some work to do to prepare for the visa interview. Here are three things that an Applicant should do before his or her interview.

Schedule a medical examination

Any Applicant for an Immigrant Visa (green card) is required to get a medical exam. The medical exam cannot be done by just any doctor.   Instead, the exam will be conducted by a government-approved doctor called a “Panel Physician.”  The Panel Physician will ask questions about vaccination history, past drug use, and will draw blood. All this must be completed before the day of the consulate interview appointment.

Although the Panel Physicians are government-approved, they are all privately-run medical clinics. This means that the Applicant will have to contact the clinic directly to schedule an appointment. Some clinics require that you schedule a visit over one month in advance. That’s why this should be the first thing that you do.   The Applicant will need to consult the specific consulate’s instructions to determine the contact information for the Panel Physicians in their countries.

Register an Online Profile (if necessary) and follow pre-interview instructions

Although the immigrations laws are the generally the same everywhere, each consulate has the authority to design a system that works for it. For example, some consulates, like one in Mexico, will deliver the Immigrant Visa and passport to the Applicant through a third party using DHL.  So you may need to register on an electronic system before your interview.

Because every consulate has its own procedure, it is important that you carefully review the consulate’s specific instructions. To find these, you can go here and click on the consulate where you will be interviewed.

Gather originals and everything else submitted to NVC

Finally, it is important to gather all original documents that were submitted to the NVC through their online system. This includes things like the Applicant’s Birth Certificate and Marriage Certificate. The consular officer will ask to see all of the originals of what was sent, so the Applicant should make sure to have everything that is required.

For a list of the documents and instructions, the Applicant should again go to this website and click on the consulate where they will be interviewed. There will be a list of instructions on what to take to the appointment.

Prepare for the interview by reviewing the immigrant visa application (DS-260) and paperwork submitted

One of the purposes of the Immigrant Visa interview is to confirm information about the case to make sure they have all of the right information when they make a decision.  This means that they can ask questions about anything you submitted including all documents and applications. So it’s a good idea to review what you sent.  Sometimes, the applications or documents contain conflicting information, or sometimes you may find an error on the DS260. You will want to be prepared to answer questions about any inconsistencies and errors.

Step 4 - Attend Your Visa Interview

The next step of the immigrant visa process is the interview.

The immigrant visa appointment takes place after all documents, fees and applications have been submitted, accepted, and reviewed by the National Visa Center (NVC). After patiently waiting, the NVC will email or mail notification that an interview has been scheduled at a U.S. consulate or embassy aboard.

Why is a visa interview required?

In order to get to the interview stage, you will have submitted lot of documents and information to immigration officials.  The immigration officer will need to verify this information in a face-to-face interview.  The officer is also required to investigate any possible grounds for disqualification.  So if you have negative immigration or criminal history, the consular officers will most certainly dig into your past.

Once the officer has asked all the questions he or she deems necessary, then he or she will decide whether or not to issue the Immigrant Visa to the Applicant.

What will be asked at the visa interview and how long will the interview last?

The consular officer will confirm information provided in your visa application and ask questions about the documents submitted.  Because the officer will have already conducted a background check by running your fingerprints through a government database, you can expect questions about your past arrest record or other encounters with immigration.

You may also get questions about your relationship to the family member that filed a petition for you.  So, if your spouse filed the I-130 visa petition, then you may get questions about your marriage.

An immigrant visa interview can last as little as 10 minutes and as long as 2 hours. It depends on the case type and Applicant’s history. Bottom line: be nice and courteous and answer all of the officer’s questions honestly.

And for more information on preparing for your visa interview, visit our article.


Step 5 - After the Visa Interview

The interview portion of the immigrant visa process can go in several different directions.  It is thus important to be prepared for the various possible outcomes.

What are the possible outcomes?

There are four possible outcomes of an Immigrant Visa interview. The first two are obvious; the Applicant is approved or denied. The other two possibilities are a little trickier: the case could be referred for “Administrative Processing,” or you could be issued a “Request for Further Evidence.” For now, just know that “Administrative Processing” or a “Request for Further Evidence” will cause a delay and require more steps on the Applicant’s part. For the purposes of this explanation, however, we will focus on what occurs after an approval.

What happens after the Applicant is approved?

If the case is approved, then the Applicant will either receive by courier or pick up at the consulate (depending on country and consulate) two items. These are: 1) Their passport with the Immigrant Visa stamped on one of the pages inside; and 2) A sealed packet. The Immigrant Visa page in the Applicant’s passport will look like this:

The other item that you receive, the sealed envelope, should NOT be opened. The sealed envelope will need to be provided to the immigration officer at the border when the Applicant is entering the United States. The envelope will look like this:

sealed envelop with immigrant visa

How will I get my actual lawful permanent resident card (green card)?

After the Applicant has entered the United States using the two items listed above (passport and sealed envelope), there is one more step required. Immigration officials recommend that the Applicant order the green card before they enter the U.S., but the Applicant can do it before or after they enter. Our recommendation is that you do it after. The reason is that the Applicant is not officially a lawful permanent resident until they have entered with the Immigrant Visa.

To order the card, go here. Enter the alien number and the DOS Case ID, which can be found on your documents provided.  For clarification, the alien number begins with the letter “A” and is followed by nine numbers (Ex. A 200 123 456).    The “DOS Case ID” is the case number that was used to submit and complete the case at the consulate.  The DOS Case ID number is three letters followed by 9 or 10 numbers (Ex. CDJ201912456).

Thereafter, you may pay with credit card or a bank account. The card will be mailed to the address inside the U.S. that was provided to immigration when the case was filed.

Once you have received your green card, you are the end of the immigrant visa process.


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