How to Apply for a United States Visa

Calendar Icon Updated January 15, 2019
Visas

In most cases citizens from another country who want to visit the United States must apply for a visa before they can be allowed to enter the country. This is done to ensure an orderly flow into and out of the United States and to protect national security at U.S. borders and during visa holders’ stays.

There are two main types of visas. Nonimmigrant visas are for those who want to come to the United States for business, tourism or other related limited timeframe activities. Immigrant visas are for those who want to come to the United States on a permanent basis.

Regardless of the reason for the visit, there are many steps that must be followed to increase the likelihood that a visa will be issued.

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But those steps can be complicated, and depending on the type of visa you are seeking, requirements may vary widely. This guide will explain and better prepare you for those steps to ensure you can obtain the visa you are seeking.

How Eligibility.com Can Help You

Whether you’re a student or a highly trained professional, an athlete or a school teacher, a tourist or a scientist, working through the process of obtaining a United States visa can be complicated and intimidating. There are numerous forms to complete and each program has it’s own specific requirements.

That’s why Eligibility.com is ready to help you. In most instances, you can access the information you need to help you better grasp the visa process by reading this guide or through our website. But if you want more help, we’re here for you.

As part of our pledge to be your one-stop resource, Eligibility.com has a trained staff of professionals who can get you the answers about visas of every kind, as well as dozens of other government services and programs.

If you can’t find the information you need in this guide, please contact us through this website, by e-mail, or by calling us at 888-959-1135

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The basic steps of the visa process

Although every visa is different and will have its own unique set of application requirements, there are several steps that are common to most all visa applications. Here’s an overview of what you can expect.

Research the type of visa you want to get. The better prepared you are, the better your chances are of getting a visa. The United States Department of State oversees the visa application process and has a comprehensive website that will give you much of the information you need. You can also contact your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate if you have questions.

Complete an online visa application. If you are a nonimmigrant, you’ll need to complete Form DS-160. You will also need to upload an appropriate photo as part of the process. When you’re done, print the confirmation page. You will need it for your next step.

Make an appointment for a visa interview. Contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your native country to set a time and a day for your interview. Be aware that waiting times can vary greatly from country to country, so the sooner you can call to make the appointment, the better.

Prepare your documents. Pay your fees. Depending on the country, you may need to pay a visa application fee prior to your interview. Make sure you do so if you are required. You’ll also need to gather a variety of documents to present at your interview. These will include a valid passport, your nonimmigrant Visa Application Form DS-160 confirmation page, a receipt showing you have paid your visa application fees, and a photo if you were not able to upload one during your online application process. These are the documents common to all visa applications. You will probably need to produce additional documents that further clarify the reason and duration of your visit.

Go to your interview and submit your documents. Along with the answers you give in your interview, the documents will be reviewed by officials to help them decide whether or not to issue a visa. In most all cases, visas are issued in just a couple of weeks after the interview. 

Additional information may be required. Sometimes, questions arise during the interview and document review. If that happens, you may be required to submit additional information, pushing your decision out by several weeks.

If your visa is approved, you will need to complete an arrival/departure form when you travel to the United States. As you enter the country, you will be asked to complete a form, be given a brief interview and your paperwork will be checked. You will get an immigration stamp if you are approved for entry. In rare instances, some travelers may need to go through additional steps such as fingerprinting, completing additional registration forms and reviews.

The importance of biometrics

While the United States is committed to welcoming people from all parts of the world, the primary mission of the U.S. government is to make sure this can be done with the utmost degree of safety. Maintaining the integrity of U.S. borders is a highly complex operation that can challenge the nation’s “secure borders, open doors” policy.

To enhance border security, as part of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, the use of biometrics was implemented. Biometrics are physical characteristic of a person that can help U.S. officials verify the identity of the person in question. The most well known biometric is a fingerprint, but officials also use facial recognition and iris scans as well. U.S. embassies and consulates are required to use these biometric identifiers in the creation of machine-readable and tamper resistant visas and other entry documents.

The use of biometrics in documents means that counterfeiting and stolen passports can be rendered useless, while also making it more difficult for terrorists to enter the country undetected.

For visa applicants, they must agree to the use of a photo and fingerprints of all ten fingers as biometric identifiers that are taken during the interview with a consular official.

For travelers who participate in the Visa Waiver Program, they are only required to present a machine-readable passport at a port of entry, along with an approved Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This is because they have already been pre-screened and have previously met travel requirements.

Visa applicants who refuse to submit to biometric screening will have their application denied because it will be deemed incomplete.

If you are denied a visa

In some cases, your application for a visa might be denied. In some instances, you will be allowed to fix the problem, but in other cases you may need to start the process all over again. Either way, there can be a significant time delay which can create more stress, added costs and more frustration.

The best way to avoid all these problems is to make sure your application is complete, accurate and truthful to the highest degree possible the first time you submit it. Try to avoid these common pitfalls when applying for a visa:

Lack of documentation – In most every case, you will know exactly what you need to submit as part of your visa application process. Not paying close attention to what you must provide is the most common reason why visa applications are denied.

Fraud – With sophisticated screening tools and unlimited access to databases, the U.S. government has considerable resources to verify your information when you submit it. Lying is a really bad idea and may land you in additional trouble aside from being denied a visa to enter the country.

A criminal record – Many criminal convictions will not disqualify you from being allowed to enter the country, especially if they are petty and minor in nature. However, if you have a history of committing serious crimes in your native country, or you are linked to terrorist groups of any kind, there’s a really good chance you will be denied entry into the United States.

 Prior visa violations – If you have violated the terms of a previous visa, this will be counted against you if you apply for another. For example, if you over stayed your previous visa by 6 months or more, you face an automatic denial of entry for three years. If you over-stayed your visa and your unauthorized presence was for a year or more, you face an automatic barrier to entry for 10 years.

Health issues – If you do not have all required vaccinations or have a communicable disease such as tuberculosis, you may be inadmissible to the United States. This also extends to other mental or physical problems that can create significant public health issues, including things like drug addiction or drug abuse. 

More information regarding visas including which one is right for you can be found in our Ultimate Guide to Visas. For additional help and information:

The U.S. Department of State maintains an interactive tool that is the first step in helping foreign citizens find out what kind of visa they will need for travel to the United States.

Overall, the best place to get information regarding a new visa application or to check on the status of an existing application is by calling U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services National Customer Service Center at 1-800-375-5283. Call 1-800-767-1833 to access TDD if you need assistance due to a hearing impairment.

Eligibility Team

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