Applying for a US Visa: Applicant FAQs
If you’re planning to travel to the US, one of the first things to check is which US visa – if any – you’ll need to apply for to gain entry into the country.
But dealing with the US immigration authorities is rarely straightforward! As US immigration attorneys, here are our top tips for travellers looking to head to the US.
Do I need a visa to travel to the US?
If you’re a tourist or travelling on business to the US for a stay that’s less than 90 days, you may be eligible to travel visa-free.
To travel under the VWP, you will however need to secure ESTA approval (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This is an online application process used by the US government to pre-screen all non-US individuals applying for travel via the VWP before they leave their home country.
You must also hold a valid e-passport from your VWP country.
If you are not eligible for travel under the VWP – perhaps you are not a national of a visa waiver country, or if your ESTA application has been denied or your planned activity is not permissible under the VWP (such as gainful employment, media professionals on assignment) – you will have to apply for the relevant visa to travel to the US.
What type of visa do I need?
US visas are classified as either:
- Nonimmigrant visas for temporary permission to enter the US for example for tourism or short term employment or business-related activity.
- Immigrant visas grant US permanent residence.
Your choice of visa will be determined predominantly by what you plan to do while you’re in the US. For example:
- Visiting as a tourist: If you’re not eligible to travel under the VWP, you should look at a visitor visa. If you’re travelling to the US for tourism, leisure, to visit family, this would be the B-2 visa. For business travel, such as attending meetings, the B-1 visa.
- Temporary employment visas: There are many different US work visas available. Suitability and eligibility will depend on a range of factors including whether you are an investor; intra-company transfer;media professionals; specialty occupation professionals among many others. Each visa will have its own specific requirements and application process.
- Studying in the US: The J-visa for students is for non-US national students that are accepted into an approved educational program in the USA. They do not automatically allow employment but many work-study provisions are available.
Before you start applying for a particular visa, it really helps to do the research. Are you certain it is the most appropriate for your circumstances? Look at the specific criteria for that particular route and whether you have the evidence to prove that you satisfy these.
How do I apply for a US visa?
Applying for a US visa isn’t always straightforward. Your local US consular post processes applications for US visas, including those for temporary travel.
For temporary visas, such as the B1 visa, you complete the online form DS-160, pay the relevant fee(s) before arranging an interview at the Consular office where you applied eg for UK-based applications, it would be at the US Embassy in London
Make sure you make a copy of the submitted application form and other documents. Pay attention specifically to the DS-160 confirmation page. Once you finish and submit the form, the computer will generate that page. Save it on your computer and then also print a few copies. You will need to bring that for your interview and you must not lose it.
Build a file to keep all your documents and correspondence and bring this to your visa interview to refer to and help when responding to the visa questions.
Where possible, it’s always best to apply as early as possible in advance of your trip. Nonimmigrant visa applications will for example require you to attend a visa interview at the Consular post where you filed your petition, and interview waiting times and visa processing and can fluctuate, depending on the Embassy’s caseload, the time of year and the type of visa you are applying for. Following pandemic restrictions on service provision and application processing, the availability of interview slots and expected visa application processing times continue to be subject to delay.
When you attend the interview, you will need to take supporting documents with you to evidence your eligibility. Don’t underestimate the importance of getting your supporting documentation right – it will be the difference between a successful visa application and a delayed, or even refused, application.
If your visa classification is placed into administrative processing, there will be an additional wait time of anything between a few days and a few months.
While the consular officer is required to operate under US immigration rules and guidelines when deciding on whether to approve or refuse a visa application, recent changes passed by the US Administration have extended the discretionary powers of adjudicators.
Specifically, this means that if an application requires further clarification on specific details or if information is missing from the original application, the adjudicator is not obligated to contact the applicant to request clarification or further information or documentation to be provided (so-called requests for evidence, RFEs).
This means visas can be refused if the visa officer considers the applicant is not eligible, on the basis of the information that has been submitted, to receive a visa under US law.
The result – it is more important than ever to ensure your application is correct, accurate, complete and thorough to minimize adjudication issues and the risk of a delayed or refused application.
What will I be asked at the visa interview?
Before you go to the interview, research the visa interview questions. Try to avoid going unprepared. Familiarise yourself with your application form and the information you provided. Take your documentary evidence with you. Interviews can last around 20 minutes, so be organized. File your documents so they are easily to find in response to interview questions.
The interview can seem daunting, but with preparation and all documents, you will be best placed to present well.
Once you hand in your supporting documents and finish the interview, wait. The U.S Embassy will be processing your case and will take some time to get back to you with an answer. You might be lucky and they will let you know on the same day as your interview, but that does not happen very often.
Instead, you might have to wait a few days, weeks, or even a few months. Be patient and do not call the Embassy constantly to check up on them. They will notify you when they make their decision.
If they approve your visa, they will mail your passport back to you or you can go and pick it up. If they deny the visa, they will let you know of the reasons. You can then use that to correct the mistakes and apply again.
Either way, you cannot rush the US Embassy to make a decision, so just wait until they call.
Can my family join me in the US?
A key question to ask when considering your visa options is whether your family can apply with you as dependents to join you in the US.
The rules unfortunately are different for different visa classes; while some permit dependents to apply with the principal applicant, others require family members to apply for a visa in their own right.
Now long is a US visa valid for?
Each visa has rules on the time you can stay and when it expires. If the U.S Embassy decides to give you the visa, make sure you know those rules. The visa on your passport will state how long you can stay and you must respect that.
Do not try to overstay your visa or do something you are not allowed to. If you have a tourist visa, you cannot find a job or go to school in the US. Breaking these rules can result in you being deported from the U.S and will be a problem in the future.
If at any point in time you will then want to apply for a US visa again, the US Embassy will know you broke the rules before. They will repeatedly deny your visa and you will not be able to go again. So be respectful of the rules and you will have an easier time getting a US visa again in the future.
What if my visa application is denied?
Cases are taken on their merit, meaning visas can be refused for many and varied grounds.
Some reasons should be preempted in the application. For example, if you are applying for a temporary, nonimmigrant visa, you will need to show the visa officer that you have ‘sufficient ties’ to your country of residence that will ensure you will leave the US before the end of your visa period. This could look like evidence of continued employment in your country of residence, a mortgage on your family home, details of your family in your country of residence.
If you are inadmissible under general grounds, for example due to a past criminal conviction, you may have to consider applying for a waiver of inadmissibility to support your visa application.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.